Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho: the young stars leading a Nigerian football revival

Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho: the young stars leading a Nigerian football revival

REWIND TO THE TENDER YEARS OF THE NEW MILLENNIUM, cast your gaze across the green grasses of the Premier League’s stadia, and there, dancing across them, you would inevitably find a pair of Nigerians widely regarded as the two greatest footballers their country has ever given life to.

Each one half of an aesthetic dichotomy; one lanky, spindly, an ungainly-looking giant in both size and reputation, the other neater, more compact, and with an unrelenting swagger owing to his vast repertoire of skills. The two players are, of course, Nwankwo Kanu and Jay-Jay Okocha.

The former conquered the division, winning the Premier League crown twice with Arsenal, adding to an array of trophies lifted during his days in England, while the latter, on English shores at least, amassed a collection of rewards rather less tangible. His were found not in a cabinet but in the affections of those in and out of Bolton colours, as his skills enthralled the country and the crowds loved him for it.

During the seasons the two spent bringing joy to their adopted isle and its showpiece league, as well as to their countrymen watching on from their homes in West Africa, Kanu and Okocha effectively set the bar for all future footballing compatriots.

Today, two entirely new Nigerian fledglings find themselves blazing the trail in the Premier League, consistently named alongside tremendous company as two of the hottest young talents to be found plying their trade in Europe. Assuming the mantle bequeathed to them by their footballing forefathers Kanu and Okocha, are two bright stars hoping to lead a Nigerian revival in the Premier League, as well as on the imposing international stage, aiming to soar higher than any Super Eagle before them. Meet Kelechi Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi.

The elder of the two footballers, Alexander Chuka Iwobi was born in the port city of Lagos in May 1996, to be followed five months later by the birth of Kelechi Promise Iheanacho in the south-eastern state of Imo.

Iwobi’s initial introduction to the world of football came courtesy of his uncle via rather unconventional means. Far from influencing his nephew by simply buying him his first infant-sized replica kit or soft sponge football, Iwobi’s uncle instead provided him with an unforgettable first-hand account of just what life as a world-renowned footballer could be like; no doubt, one of the many privileges of having Jay-Jay Okocha for an uncle.

Iheanacho, meanwhile, fell in love with the beautiful game in a style far more reminiscent of those watching his ascent from the stands. He found his feet simply playing in the streets with the children with whom he shared his hometown, only his games were unlike those many would have taken part in as children.

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As a boy, Iheanacho and his football-loving friends would play their matches on dirty, grassless pitches, pitted with divots and mounds and with no scarcity of rocks scattered beneath their bare feet. This is where games played in real boots with real balls were confined to the imagination, played only nocturnally against hazy, hopeful scenes as they slept.

“Where I grew up in southern Nigeria, it was kind of like a ghetto. It was a tough place to be a kid. My family did not have the extra funds to buy a real ball. Most of my friends didn’t have one either, so we would run around the streets and use whatever we could find to kick around. We would make balls out of socks, or sometimes we even used a balloon.” Interviewing with The Players’ Tribune, Iheanacho gave a humbling insight into his impoverished beginnings in the sport.

“Most people did not have cell phones or the internet, so the club coaches would walk through the streets in our neighborhood blowing a whistle. That was the signal that it was time for training. You knew that if you wanted to train, you had to go outside and follow them to the primary school down the road.”

After emigrating from Nigeria to London with his parents aged four, Iwobi’s first impression of English football arrived among the simplistic setting of primary school, where the impact he had upon those in his new home were sufficient to see his unpracticed signature swiftly secured by the Arsenal youth academy at just seven years old, as he signed his first contract with the club in 2003.

A decade later Iwobi’s name graced a senior Arsenal team sheet for the very first time, as the youngster was included in the matchday squad that travelled to West Bromwich Albion for a League Cup fixture in 2013. He remained on the bench for the game’s duration, though, and was made to wait a further two seasons before being given the opportunity to make his mark on the pitch.

During this time Iheanacho was busy making his own comparatively belated journey to England by way of the 2013 Under-17 World Cup, the tournament at which the talented youngster would play a starring role, sending every European scout in attendance back to their clubs bearing rave reviews.

In the United Arab Emirates, Iheanacho opened the tournament with a box office display, firing four goals past group-stage opponents Mexico in a scintillating 6-1 win, decisively declaring his and his team’s lofty ambitions for the competition.

In their second group-stage tie, then faced Sweden and were held to a 3-3 draw. On this occasion, Iheanacho was kept from scoring, although the Swedes could do nothing to prevent him from collecting two assists. For their group-stage finale against Iraq, Iheanacho featured heavily once more in what would prove to be the simplest of endeavours for he and his compatriots. The forward, on this occasion, was able to watch on with glee as his team strolled to a 5-0 victory without the need for his willing intervention and progressed into the next round as the winners of their group.

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Against Iran in the first knockout round, Nigeria were unstoppable in front of goal again and Iheanacho would once more contribute to yet another awesome attacking display. This time his low left-footed drive beat the goalkeeper from the edge of the area to score what would be his team’s second goal of the game and his fifth of the tournament. They would triumph 4-1.

In the quarter-finals, Iheanacho played the role of provider again, twice finding the pass that would unlock the Uruguayan defence and help his teammate Awoniyi onto the scoresheet. To contest their semi-final Nigeria were reunited with their group stage opponents, Sweden, against whom they had scored three times during their last meeting. They would do so again and, more decisively, keep a clean sheet on this occasion too. That man Iheanacho would prove vital once more as it was his dinked pass over the Sweden defence, to land at the feet of Awoniyi, that would aid them in opening the scoring. Late goals from Okon and Ezeh made sure of the win.

At the Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi, Nigeria were again faced with the task of defeating Mexico. Only this time, unlike on the day of their group-stage encounter, the World Cup was at stake.

The scoring was opened by a Mexican foot, though thankfully for the Nigerians, it was an own goal that gave them an important lead. Concluding a typically expeditious counter-attack that saw Nigeria sweep forward, turning a defensive corner into an attack of genuine purpose in mere seconds, Mexican Érick Aguirre could only poke the ball into his own net in trying to prevent the three-on-one scenario from ending in a goal for his opponents.

Four minutes before the hour mark a familiar scene played out in front of the watching crowd as Iheanacho scored his team’s second of the game. Following a fine passing move, the ball was sent out wide to Nigerian right-back Musa Muhammed whom each of his teammates assumed would use his unmarked position on the flank to whip in a cross. Instead, Muhammed let fly a ferocious shot which the goalkeeper could only parry to the feet of Iheanacho who typically required just a single touch to place the ball into the net with an instinctive instep finish.

Before the curtain fell on the tournament, Nigeria would add a third, the cherry to the icing on top of their World Cup-winning cake, as captain Muhammed finally got his goal; a fitting reward for his exquisite free-kick just 10 minutes from time. As the final whistle blew, Nigeria were confirmed as under-17 champions of the world.

The tournament win meant more to Iheanacho than perhaps any of his teammates. Eight months before the tournament the teenager’s mother had tragically passed away. Iheanacho had played in the African Under-17 Championships two months after her death, and had dedicated his hat-trick – scored during a 7-0 defeat of the Republic of Congo – to his late mother, but his country were eventually defeated on penalties in the final by the Ivory Coast. With the Under-17 World Cup grasped tightly in his hands, there is no doubt who Iheanacho’s thoughts turned to when he lifted it.

Having notched six goals and seven assists, enough to see him finish as the joint-second top scorer in the tournament, Iheanacho proved undoubtedly instrumental in securing his country’s fourth under-17 World Cup, and for his efforts he was rewarded with the competition’s Golden Ball. Consequently, it was to the surprise of nobody that persistent rumours of a move to Europe followed the forward as he made his way back home from the UAE.

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A multitude of clubs from every corner of the continent hoped to lure the young striker, Arsenal, Chelsea, Udinese, Monaco, Porto and Sporting CP all reportedly willing to go public with their interest in the hope of attracting their target, and it was the latter who seemed set to sign Iheanacho when news across his native country named them favourites.

Then, in December 2012, a little over a month on from his World Cup success, it was formally announced by the youngster’s father that Iheanacho had signed a pre-contract agreement with Manchester City; he would officially join them in October 2014 on the day of his 18th birthday. The move shocked many, including the player himself, but it was under the instruction of his father, who remained adamant that his son could impress in any team, regardless of their perceived strength, that Iheanacho signed for the Manchester club. During the intervening season, the Nigerian would continue to play in his native league for Taye Academy.

Before the year was up, the 17-year-old was named as the Confederation of African Football’s Most Promising Talent of the Year, an award previously collected by the likes of Obafemi Martins, John Obi Mikel, Salomon Kalou and Mohamed Salah. It appeared for all to see as though Kelechi Iheanacho had the world at his feet. In England he hoped to provide the proof.

It may seem odd that, despite the overwhelming promise with which Nigerian-born Alex Iwobi’s undeniable talent is most often referenced, he was not a member of his nation’s Under-17 World Cup-winning squad of 2013. The simple explanation is that, at the time, Iwobi was representing England.

A regular in the England youth set-up from the age of 15, many expected to witness Iwobi’s natural progression from youth player to fully fledged international, all the while with three lions worn proudly across his chest. However, despite representing England to acclaim with the under-16s, under-17s and under-18s, no call up to the under-19s followed when Iwobi came of age. His absence was made only more baffling when he broke into Arsenal’s first team.

Though Iwobi had represented the Arsenal academy for over a decade come the date of his official first team debut, Iwobi experienced a rapid rise to the senior squad. Seemingly no closer to the squad than any other highly aspiring youth holding their readied stance on the blurred periphery, suddenly Iwobi found himself alongside fellow youngsters Chuba Akpom, Gedion Zelalem, Jeff Reine-Adelaide and Chris Willock in the 27-man squad picked by his manager for the club’s 2015 pre-season tour of Asia.

In Singapore, Iwobi and Akpom made a fine first impression on those in attendance. While it was the latter who helped himself to a hat-trick against their opponents, a Singapore Select XI, Iwobi’s unerring influence throughout the game ensured he too remained in good stead for a continued place in the team. When the team arrived back home to contest the Emirates Cup, Iwobi maintained his on-pitch position and impressed again, this time against far more prestigious opposition.

In the opening game of their tournament, before a crowd of almost 60,000 fans, Arsenal fired on all cylinders and blew Lyon away. Thrilling though the 6-0 victory was to the thousands watching, the occasion will likely last longest in the mind of Alex Iwobi, who scored his first senior goal for Arsenal on the day. After the game, Arsène Wenger poured praise on the young debutant: “I like his team attitude, his movement. We have a game based on movement and speed, and he integrates that very well. He has good power and is usually efficient – he scores goals a lot,” said the manager. “Some players might go out on loan but Iwobi will stay with us.”

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Wenger evidently had big plans for the young Nigerian, and so too did his native football association, since all throughout his time playing for the England youth setup, Nigeria hadn’t once given up hope of convincing the forward to play for his motherland. In 2015, two years since Iwobi had last been called to represent England at under-18 level, to the delight of both parties, player and nation finally agreed upon a collaboration and England’s loss officially became Nigeria’s gain. Iwobi would follow in his uncle’s prestigious footsteps.

The young forward made his debut for the Super Eagles on 8 October 2015, as a second half substitute during a friendly against DR Congo, before, exactly a year and a day later, he scored his first goal for his country; the opener in a 2-1 victory over Zambia in a 2018 World Cup qualification fixture.

With Wenger’s word as his bond, Iwobi duly remained with Arsenal and during the early season made inroads into the first team. After making his opening bow in the ill-fated 3-0 defeat to second-tier Sheffield Wednesday in a League Cup tie in October 2015, Iwobi was afforded the final few minutes of his team’s 3-0 victory away to Swansea, as he replaced Mesut Özil to make his Premier League debut. Four days later Iwobi surpassed another landmark as he was given a brief feel for Champions League football, seeing out the closing stages of his team’s regrettable 5-1 loss to Bayern Munich. Naturally, the joy of those memorable milestones was tempered by the poor form of his team and the results he was made to endure.

This was particularly evident when Wenger’s trust in the teenager was affirmed in emphatic style as Iwobi played out his first Champions League start under the bright lights at Barcelona’s Camp Nou in March 2016. Though he and his teammates were downed 3-1 on the night and dumped unceremoniously out of the tournament, Iwobi turned in a thoroughly impressive performance, as his exemplary dribbling, tidy touch, neat passing and fearlessness evidenced a maturity well beyond his years.

It was clear that these testing circumstances early in Iwobi’s Arsenal career would serve only to prepare him for the rigours of life at the top and earn him a wealth of experience that he would no doubt later call upon. Having fared rather more favourably in back-to-back FA Cup conquests against Sunderland and Burnley, Iwobi was rewarded in the weeks following his mature performance away to Barcelona with starts against Everton and Watford in which he would score his first Arsenal goals.

“It’s crazy, a mad feeling,” were Iwobi’s choice words after playing a significant role in his team’s 4-0 dismantling of Watford. He had been named Man of the Match for his endeavours against Everton at Goodison Park, where he had scored his first competitive Arsenal goal, and followed his finest game to date with an equally rousing performance against the Hornets. “When you’re young, you dream of this and this is like a dream come true; winning with this team.”

While Iwobi was busy making his own dream a reality, his international team-mate Iheanacho was endeavouring to do the very same thing in his first season in Manchester.

After representing City’s academy during the waning months of the 2014/15 season, the following campaign saw Iheanacho rewarded for his positive start to life in England with a call-up to the senior squad for the club’s pre-season preparations. Impressive performances against an eclectic array of opponents – Roma, the Vietnamese national team and VfB Stuttgart – ensured Iheanacho stayed firmly in place at the forefront of manager Manuel Pellegrini’s first-team plans.

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On 29 August 2015 Iheanacho took to the field in a competitive fixture for Manchester City for the first time in a routine victory over Watford, and just 19 days later scored his first goal for the club. As much of a surprise as Iheanacho’s starring role had been to many, his manager had anticipated such an impact: “He’s just 18 and started working with our squad last season … this year he started pre-season with the squad and will be a very important player for the future. He’s one of the reasons I didn’t bring another striker in when we sold Edin Džeko. He deserves that chance,” he told the BBC. And when handed that chance by his manager, Iheanacho grabbed a hold and held on for dear life.

Over the following months, Iheanacho established himself as his club’s third-choice striker. Though used sparingly, the Nigerian made good on what playing time he was afforded with goals during cameos against Tottenham, Stoke and Southampton, and even thanked his manager’s faith in starting him against Aston Villa for their FA Cup fourth round tie with a hat-trick, garnished with an additional assist for a fourth goal late on.

Iheanacho’s growing contribution did not go unnoticed and Pellegrini even sought to start the young forward in his team’s Champions League semi-final at home to Real Madrid. They would ultimately exit the competition at that stage, no thanks to a 1-0 second-leg defeat which Iheanacho’s 20-minute salvo could do little to prevent, but another landmark in the quickly developing career of the Nigerian had been surpassed.

Iheanacho finished his inaugural season in the Premier League with an admirable eight-goal tally, incredibly boasting the best goals-per-minute ratio of any player in the division as he averaged a one every 93.9 minutes. From his 35 appearances in all competitions, just 11 of which were starts, Iheanacho recorded 14 goals and five assists, ensuring he ended the season as City’s third-highest scorer.

At the Ullevi Stadium in Gothenburg on 7 August 2016, in preparation for their sophomore seasons in the Premier League, the two Nigerians met as opponents for just the second time. With their clubs concluding pre-season duties with a so-called ‘super match’ on Swedish soil, the players locked horns as Manchester City took on Arsenal on neutral ground. On the day, both players would influence proceedings in a far more meaningful manner than they had been able to during their first encounter.

In the penultimate game of their first season as bona fide Premier League participants, the two had featured on opposing sides as their clubs contested a fierce 2-2 draw at the Etihad Stadium, though neither Nigerian was able to manipulate the match’s outcome to their own want or will.

On this occasion, however, both would find themselves unshackled by the freedom befitting a pre-season game and would consequently find themselves together on the scoresheet. Iwobi struck first, finding the Gunners’ equalising goal with a shot of curling finesse bent beyond the outstretched glove of Joe Hart, before Iheanacho nodded home what would prove to be only a consolation goal for his team having been left unmarked at the far post.

Though only a glorified friendly, this game, and the influence of both Iheanacho and Iwobi, teased a sight of things to come as both players would use the following season as a springboard to greater heights, albeit to differing levels of success.

Iheanacho has the potential to become a leading Premier League goalscorer

In the days leading into the 2016/17 season, Iwobi changed his shirt number from 45 to 17 as the latter had been left behind by Alexis Sánchez ,who swiftly assumed the number 7 shirt upon the release of Tomáš Rosický. This change of number was initially unwelcomed by Iwobi who seemed keen on sticking to his original number. After all, 45 was the number that had adorned his shirt on the unforgettable occasions of his first appearance, his first start and his first goal for Arsenal. There was no denying, however, that his new number better suited his elevated level of experience and the squad role he would assume over the coming months.

During the course of the season, after leaving his youth days behind him in every sense, Iwobi would play 38 times for Arsenal, establishing himself as a first-team regular for Wenger’s side, who would retain their FA Cup title.

Throughout the same season, Iheanacho would experience a campaign punctuated by fluctuating fortunes. The year brought much cause for celebration as the young Nigerian proved instrumental in his team’s memorable victory in September 2016’s Manchester derby, scoring and assisting against his team’s most bitter rivals, before scoring his first Champions League goal just four days later in a 4-0 thumping of Borussia Mönchengladbach. Unmissable exploits such as these earned Iheanacho a nomination for FIFA’s Golden Boy award.

But the Mancunian managerial revolution that saw Pep Guardiola succeed Manuel Pellegrini brought with it a customary investment in new blood that pushed Iheanacho to the back of the striking queue. Upon arrival, the ex-Barcelona boss acquired expensive attacking alternatives in the form of Nolito, Leroy Sané and Gabriel Jesus, and all at once, Iheanacho’s noble fight for game time became an excruciating struggle.

Despite expressing his desire to stay with the Manchester club, having signed a long-term contract in recent months, Iheanacho was made available for transfer, a move that the 2016 Premier League champions Leicester City greeted gladly. As Iwobi jetted off to Australia to star in his third pre-season with Arsenal, Iheanacho prepared to embark on an altogether different journey across country, as the Foxes struck a £25 million deal for his services.

Many could interpret Guardiola’s sale of Iheanacho as a bad omen for the Nigerian’s future ambitions, such is the value with which Guardiola’s judgement on footballing talent is held. It is worth acknowledging, however, that the sole influence of the sale was almost certainly the immense pressure placed upon the manager to deliver immediate on-field success – and the consequential need to favour ready-made world-class talent over the timely development of future stars – and not deficiencies in Iheanacho’s game, of which there are seemingly few.

There is perhaps no better proof of this very notion than the commitment shown by City to ensuring any permanent sale of Iheanacho was underpinned by a future buy-back clause. The one included in his sale to Leicester reportedly sits at £50 million – double the figure of his sale. Clearly even the selling club appears convinced the Nigerian is only going to keep improving.

Should he do so there is no telling what heights he or his international teammate could reach. At present, as we tumble into another manic Premier League season, both players appear intent on spending the majority of their time on their pitch, where they both appear most comfortable, doing their damnedest to remain central to the plans of their international manager.Where exactly they may go from there will be an adventure entirely of their own making. Their trajectory, much like the eagle they adorn on their Nigeria shirt, will surely be upwards.

By Will Sharp @shillwarp

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